Feb 5 2009 12:48pm

“My Star Trek novel”: Octavia Butler's Survivor

Survivor (1978) is part of the Pattern series, but has not been reprinted since 1981. Butler repudiated the novel and refused to allow it to be reprinted:

When I was young, a lot of people wrote about going to another world and finding either little green men or little brown men, and they were always less in some way. They were a little sly, or a little like “the natives” in a very bad, old movie. And I thought, “No way. Apart from all these human beings populating the galaxy, this is really offensive garbage.” People ask me why I don’t like Survivor, my third novel. And it’s because it feels a little bit like that. Some humans go up to another world, and immediately begin mating with the aliens and having children with them. I think of it as my Star Trek novel.

All I can say is, she clearly watched a better grade of Star Trek than I ever did. I can understand her problem with the biology, but what she seems to be saying there is that Survivor is a dishonest novel. Well, I kind of like it. I’m sorry you can’t read it.

I was wrong in the comments to the last post when I said it was only tenuously connected to the other Pattern books. It is, as I remembered, almost entirely set on another planet. But it’s essential that the humans in the book—and especially Alanna, the protagonist and titular survivor—came from that disintegrating Earth. They have lived through a lot of betrayal (“a clayark friend” is an untrustworthy friend, from the people who deliberately spread the plague) and crisis. Alanna herself was a “wild human” before being adopted by the colonising missionaries. Between the ages of eight and fifteen, after her parents died as society collapsed, she lived alone and wild. Every society she becomes part of afterwards she blends into and adopts protective coloration. The missionaries who take her in are themselves not your usual humans in space. They’ve taken a one way journey and are particularly obsessed with keeping themselves human, because they have seen the clayarks. And their spaceship is powered by a telekinetic who dies on arrival. Nobody’s boldly going—more like fleeing. They’re space refugees much more than space pioneers.

The basic story of Survivor is in fact fairly standard for written SF. Some humans go to colonize another planet, it has intelligent aliens on it, they have trouble with them, the protagonist is captured by the aliens and figures out how to get along with them. I can think of a pile of books this describes: Judith Moffett’s Pennterra, Cherryh’s Forty Thousand in Gehenna, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Star of Danger—hang on a moment, why are all those written by women? Is there something I’m not seeing? And why have I read all these books so I have their names on the tip of my finger? Why is this a theme and a story I’m always happy to rediscover? Is there actually a subversive feminist thing going on here? (You think?) Certainly Alanna is a powerful central female character of a kind that was still quite unusual in 1978, and even in the early eighties when I read Survivor. And certainly this thing of  getting along with aliens, especially in the light of the Tiptree story, is interesting. I think Survivor can definitely be positioned with a lot of feminist SF.

It is in fact an interesting variation on the theme outlined above. Firstly, Alanna, the human protagonist, is very atypical. She’s from Earth, but not an Earth or a culture that feels familiar. (Forget Star Trek’s Middle America in Space.) Even beyond what’s happened to Earth, she’s very young and she has that feral background. It would be a much more ordinary book with a protagonist designed to be easy to identify with. It’s the characterisation of Alanna that makes this rise above the norm. Also, the alien culture is nifty. They’re all Kohn, but the humans interact with two nations of them, the Garkohn and the Tehkohn. They have fur that changes colour and flashes as part of their communication. The Garkohn, with whom the humans initially make friends, marks membership by deliberately eating an addictive fruit that grows only in their region. I’d also argue with Butler’s characterisation of the aliens (in the interview) as “somehow lesser.” They’re not as technologically advanced as the humans, certainly, but in every other way they have them beaten and surrounded. There’s very little doubt that the human colony on the planet is going to be utterly assimilated. The aliens are far better fitted to survive. And as we know, humans on Earth aren’t doing well, and many of the other colonies being sent out are taking telepathic children along as cuckoos. As a universe, it looks as if aliens are winning hands down.

The survival theme is obvious, the novel’s other theme is belonging.

When people talk about “write what you know” instead of writing SF, I always say that the one thing we’re all qualified to write is the story of being thirteen years old and surrounded by aliens. There’s a way in which Survivor is that—again especially in the light of “The Women Men Don’t See.” Alanna’s eighteen when she goes to the alien planet, twenty at the end of the book. To begin with she doesn’t fit in anywhere. The humans are just as alien to her as the aliens are, more alien in some ways, she more naturally fits with the aliens. This is the story of how she finds her place and defines herself as belonging. Her place is found among the aliens, and by the (biologically improbable) child she bears to the blue-furred alien leader who first raped her but who she later comes to love. I find that trope a lot more problematic than the human/alien interfertility.

The other thing that’s weird in this book is color. Not among the humans. The humans are a mixture of black and white, and Alanna describes herself as “half-black and half-Asian.” (I notice there was no question of disguising this on the cover. Both US and UK covers went with the aliens.) The remaining racial prejudice that causes one colonist to suggest that Alanna would be better adopted by black parents than white ones is raised only to make the point that everyone is human. But then we get to the aliens. The furry (but humanoid, and inter-fertile) Kohn are literally “people of color”—they are heavily furred and their fur changes colour as part of communication. Their natural fur shade determines their caste, the bluer the better and the yellower the worse. I’m sure Butler can’t have done this unconsciously, with color of all things, but I find it hard to understand what she intended with the text’s neutral-to-positive depiction of color as caste and destiny for the aliens. The Garkohn, who have killed off their blue-furred upper classes, are the addicted bad guys, and the Tehkohn, who retain the caste system complete, are the ones Alanna chooses to belong to. Her leader husband has luminously blue fur. If this is possibly what later made Butler uncomfortable and want to suppress the book, I can see it. I mean I can also see all sorts of thought-provoking ways in which the alien color-change fur could be an interesting thing to do with race... but that really doesn’t seem to be what she is doing. The goodness of blue-ness goes apparently unquestioned. Weird, as I said.

The writing is just where you’d expect it to be, better than Mind of My Mind, not quite as good as Wild Seed. The characterisation, of humans and aliens is excellent all the way through. The story is told in past and present threads, the same as Clay’s Ark. But you can’t read it (unless you want to pay at least $60 for a second-hand copy) so it doesn’t matter whether I recommend it or not.

Joe Sherry
1. jsherry
Just a note about availability in the US - some libraries and library systems may still have copies available. My library didn't have it but was able to procure a copy from elsewhere in Minnesota. It might take some work, but if you're not looking to own a copy, it can be done.

Otherwise, I kind of want to read it again. I noticed most of what you're talking about, but I don't think i ever noticed the deeper subtlety.
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
That's a good point: British library systems too, because there was a British edition and interlibrary loan will always get you the one and only copy from the British Library if it comes to that. There's a whole lot of impossible to find books I wouldn't have read if not for that. Having said that, it was a fairly flimsy paperback.

Also, I was wrong about the US cover, now I see it larger. There is a human in there, and it might even be a dark-skinned human. The Sphere UK cover (the one I own as was looking at as I wrote) has a huge hulking green alien.
JS Bangs
3. jaspax
why are all those written by women?

Hold on, there. The outline you gave also describes OSC's Speaker for the Dead. Card is not a woman, and has rarely been accused of feminism.
Mary Francesm
4. Mary Francesm
Jo, my local library system has five copies, two at libraries within walking distance (if a fairly long walk). I also did a local-university-library check, and found two more copies.

So the book is out there in the U.S., if you'd like to recommend it . . .
treebee72 _
5. treebee72
The Los Angeles Public Library online database shows one copy available at the Central Branch, but they won't let me place a hold on it and have it shipped to my local branch. Road trip required to read this one. Still, even with gas prices, less than $60!
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
Jaspax: You're right, it does also describe Speaker for the Dead. Interesting. Though there's a difference of relative power, but it is essentially that. So maybe something else going on there? I must think about this more.

I still think it's useful to consider Survivor in the context of "The Women That Men Don't See".
Mary Francesm
7. Mary Frances
jaspax @ 3: It's actually a fairly common sf-trope (as I'm sure both you and Jo realize--see Star Trek); Cherryh alone has used it more than once, though very differently each time. However, it might be an interesting research project--an opportunity for a budding sf-scholar--to do a scan of, say, 20 or 30 (or longer) years worth of "first contact and accommodation" novels, to see what the patterns are--more female authors than male? more male than female? about even? And then--possibly more interesting--examine a representative sampling of the books to see if there is any difference in the treatment of this plot-line that can be broken down along gender and/or generational lines.

Oh--and that was me, at 4. I somehow managed to misspell my own name, while posting. I think maybe I need to go eat some lunch . . .
Jo Walton
8. bluejo
Mary Frances: I said it's a fairly standard SF plot. I think you're right that it would be interesting to do that. In my entirely unscientific survey conducted at dinner last night, neither my son not my husband could think of any other examples, though they've both read SftD, and so have I. But the examples I gave are things which seem to me to be in the same general category as Survivor in my head. But it doesn't help that I used to run planetary colonization workshops at cons, which were essentially this plot, except without anyone being captured obviously.

It would be quite interesting to make a list.
Mary Francesm
9. Mary Frances
Jo: I've read Speaker for the Dead, too, and didn't think of it either until Jaspax brought it up. The other author who jumped into my head was LeGuin--maybe both Planet of Exile and Rocannon's World, though it's been a while and I might be remembering either (or both) incorrectly. Um . . . Left Hand of Darkness, too?

Drat. Now I'm going to be trying to make lists for days. I wonder if the number of times an individual author uses--and transforms--this plot is significant in any way?
Jo Walton
10. bluejo
Mary Frances: I think there's a different plot, where there's a planet full of aliens and one human goes to it and wanders around discovering it. That's the LHoD template. It's different from the human colony in the alien wilderness one. Planet of Exile almost qualifies, though I always think of it as being a story about Greenland.

I'm very fond of Planet of Exile. Maybe I'll read it. (Though I'm goofing off at the moment and reading Middlemarch.)
Wesley Osam
11. Wesley
Another example of this type of plot--or maybe halfway between this plot and the Left Hand of Darkness-template plot--is The Color of Distance by Amy Thomson. A pretty good book, though I wasn't inspired to go on to read the sequel.
Sandi Kallas
12. Sandikal
I gave up on my local library because I'd go in with a list of books I wanted to read and never found anything on the list. I just checked their ridiculously awful website and it turns out that the two branches closest to me both have copies of this book. I would have never guessed they'd have it. They don't have "A Clockwork Orange", but they have an obscure book that's been out of print for two decades.
Mary Francesm
13. Mary Frances
That's not really a surprise to me, Sandikal. A Clockwork Orange probably got read (at least by students assigned to read it for a class), beaten up, and tossed; Survivor--didn't. That's how small libraries work: they never replace books that have to be culled due to damage, and they never throw out a book, ever. Add in the fact that thirty years ago the way most library systems with limited budgets bought sf was by subscribing to the Doubleday Book Club (the U.S. hardcover Survivor was one of those, I think--at least, I seem to remember that the copy I read was a DBC) and, well, there you have it.
Eugene Myers
14. ecmyers
You'd think the New York Public Library system would have even a single copy available, but no...

Thanks for the review, though. This has whet my appetite until I can find the book.
Mary Francesm
15. Mary Frances
You might try again, ecmyers--specifically, the CATNYP catalog (which may take you to collections that aren't easily accessible, but perhaps you could try an ILL). Just for fun, I did a WorldCat search, and there seems to be at least two copies in the NYPL system, as well others statewide. Apparently, 376 copies of the U.S. Doubleday hardcover exist worldwide . . . fewer copies of the paperback, but there are still some of those out there.
Mary Francesm
16. Nicholas Waller
Abebooks seems to have second-hand copies of Survivor, but prices are £40-£417!

The plot also reminded me of Anne McCaffrey's Decision at Doona, though I can't remember if the protagonist was captured.
Mary Francesm
17. overtheseatoskye
It might be interesting to compare this SF trope to women's captivity narratives of early American colonization - in the collection I have, some women never came to any sort of accommodation with Native Americans, but other cases are more ambiguous.
Andrea Leistra
18. aleistra
I can't really say anything intelligent about Survivor, since I haven't read it for years. You have convinced me to reread it, though, along with the rest of the Pattern books (and to read the ones I haven't).

I can say, though, that this is one way in which the role of the internet in the used book world is a mixed blessing -- true, it means anyone who really wants to can find a copy right now, even if it's in an obscure used bookstore in Iowa. On the other hand, it has killed the joy of the search -- all the obscure used bookstores in Iowa are online, know the value of what they have, and you're not going to find a copy of Survivor for half the cover price anymore, the way I did eight years ago or thereabouts.
JS Bangs
19. jaspax
@blujo and @Mary Frances, I'm actually tossing around the idea of doing a survey of books with this theme, like you said. But Jo, what were the original parameters of the trope that you had in mind? Is capture an essential part of it? I ask because the alien anthropologist plot is extremely common, and I'm interested in narrowing it down a little more.

@Wesley, I was going to mention The Color of Distance, too. Looking through other examples, we have to add The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell--one of my favorite books ever.
Jo Walton
20. bluejo
Jaspax: I think the capture is part of it. And I think there has to be a human colony on the world that isn't getting on with (or doesn't believe in) the natives. Or if there isn't a colony there has to be at least a big team huddling together. Like in Ammonite, and Golden Witchbreed. I think there's a strong common element of being helpless among aliens before coming to truly understand them.

I also think OvertheseatoSkye is absolutely on the button in comparing this to the "woman captured by Indians" trope in earlier literature. (And they were "Indians" to those writers, as a literary device... and that lets me say that The Blue Sword also fits there.)

The Sparrow definitely counts.
Alex Cohen
21. AlexCohen
Perhaps Jonathan Lethem's _Girl in Landscape_ is a member of this group, although the main character -- the titular girl -- definitely "goes native."

The overall theme you're talking about seems a bright mirror to darker Westerns like "The Searchers." Capture by the natives -- always of the girl -- is one of the recurring motifs in the Western genre, but resolves quite differently. Perhaps the SF stories express our wish that things had turned out differently on the frontier.
Mary Francesm
22. NightRelic
Hi all,
I recently decided to go after finding a copy of this book since I had all the other Patternist novels and wanted to truly read the whole series. I also found copies extremely pricey on, so I turned to Ebay with a saved search. Copies come up with regularity but sparsely and with prices all over the map. Abe's lowest price at the time for something other than an extremely ratty copy was $150, the ratty copy was around $60. I managed to pick up a nice copy with minor cover wear on Ebay for $55 and then a Butler bookplate signature for $10 to put in it. Not bad. There was not much competition in the bidding for either one, I'm sorry to say. But that's good for any of you who want to own a copy. The seller originally priced it at $75 and there were no bids at that price. So, there's a bit of a ceiling on price on Ebay for this book. My copy in it's condition would probably list on Abe at $150 or a little more.
Mary Francesm
23. Mike Dubisch
Just read a library copy! Had no idea it was any harder to find then other Butler. Quite a compelling parable of human race relations and religous assumptians.

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